On December 12 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution formally recognizing the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during the Great War and in its aftermath as genocide, a move Ankara has long opposed. The resolution states that “it is the policy of the United States to commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance,” and describes the genocide in question as “the killing of an estimated 1,500,000 Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.”
The resolution passed by unanimous consent after Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, brought it up for consideration and no senator objected. The House of Representatives had passed a similar resolution six weeks earlier.
The vote was hailed by Armenia’s prime minister a “victory of justice and truth.” Turkish response was very different: “History will note these resolutions as irresponsible and irrational actions by some members of the US Congress against Turkey… They will go down in history as the responsible party for causing a long lasting damage between the two nations.” For decades Turkey has insisted the killings did not constitute genocide and still disputes the death toll, claiming the figure was closer to 300,000.
It is only natural for a decent person familiar with the long history of Muslim violence against Christians in general, and their centuries-long oppression by the Turks in particular, to sympathize with the Armenian position. The two congressional resolutions are nevertheless problematic. That hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered during the period in question is beyond dispute, and that the crime was orchestrated and perpetrated by the Ottoman authorities is equally clear. The problem is with the number of victims, which has not been established with a reasonable degree of certainty, and with the use of the term “genocide.”
Making an estimate of the number of victims of many 20th century episodes which may be included in the category of genocide and/or democide presents a major challenge for the researcher. The primary problem is not in the quest for reliable sources and the application of correct methodology, daunting as they are. The challenge is chiefly in the sphere of politics. All over the world, any attempt to establish as precisely as possible the number of victims of a “genocide” is dangerous. From China to Ukraine, there has been a tendency to weaponize past megadeaths—often of inflated magnitude—in the service of some current political agenda.
The word “genocide” was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Consisting of the Greek prefix genos (race, tribe) and the Latin suffix cide (killing), it was codified as an independent crime by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention: “Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”
Attempts to manipulate this term became apparent already in the early stages of the Cold War, however, on both sides of the “Iron Curtain.” On the Soviet side, to quote a notable example, Aron Traynin—a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences—claimed in 1955 that the United States was guilty of “genocide” of the African-American population through the policy of racial segregation. Traynin also asserted that the South African policy of apartheid was a form of “creeping genocide” directed against the native African population.
In the West the tendency to use genocide for political purposes had deeper roots and eventually far greater effect. Lemkin himself, after the end of the war, advocated the application of the term he had invented to accuse the USSR of conducting “genocide” against various ethnic groups within its boundaries.
This notion was eagerly embraced by émigré groups from the Soviet-dominated central-eastern Europe. Veterans of SS units and death camp auxiliaries from the Baltic provinces and western Ukraine were in the forefront of such efforts, followed by the Crimean Tatar, Circassian and Chechen exiles, in the attempt to frame their particular group’s alleged suffering at the hands of the Soviet authorities within the emerging genocide paradigm. Sen. Herbert H. Lehman (D-NY), made a major step toward its political instrumentalization in 1955, when he argued that genocide had been developed into a science in Nazi Germany, but that “Soviet Russia” was an even more accomplished practitioner of the crime.
Over the ensuing half-century the importance of acquiring genocide-victim status has grown exponentially. The misuse of the term genocide for political purposes has created an opportunity for the successor nation-states of both the USSR and Yugoslavia to use it in order to solidify their newly-constructed identity and historical narratives. Many have embarked on the recherche des genocides perdus in order to round off a mythical-formative tale.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has further muddied the waters by establishing an unconventional definition of genocide. In the case of Srebrenica, it made that term applicable to a segment of the male population at the level of municipalities and townships. The ICTY has also tried to impose its arbitrarily calculated number of 8,000 supposed victims as conclusive. Even if “Srebrenica” had happened exactly as claimed by the ICTY, it would have accounted for some 8 percent of the total number of victims of the Bosnian war, and one-fifth of the Muslim civilian victims of that war.
“Srebrenica” indicates the kind of challenge facing a researcher. If such games are possible in the case of a single episode which supposedly happened in the full light of international scrutiny—not far from the heart of Europe, and only a quarter-century ago—it is even more difficult to establish the number of victims of various earlier episodes of mass murder.
Various estimates of deaths resulting from the Red Terror in Russia (from December 1917 until the end of 1922) are widely contested. At the lower end, authoritative sources cite a hundred thousand executed “enemies of the people.” At the higher end some authors claim as many as 1,300,000 victims. The associated famine caused by Bolshevik requisitions in the Volga valley in 1921-22 took at least two million lives. Some researchers have contended, however, that the death count was as high as five million.
A decade later, the great famine in the most fertile parts of southwestern USSR in 1932-1933, which included parts of Ukraine but was not confined to it, was caused by land collectivization. This man-made disaster claimed at least 5.5 million lives. Some authors’ estimates are as high as eight million victims, however. A similar disparity of estimates applies to the number of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror in 1936-1938, from 680,000 to 1.5 million.
The number of civilian victims of Japan’s occupation of China (1937-1945) is even more widely disputed, from the low of 300,000 to as many as 15 million. Particularly contentious is the massacre carried out by the Japanese after they conquered Nanking in December 1937. It claimed between 50,000 and 300,000 lives, with 70-80 thousand victims the most likely figure. Nevertheless, to this day, in China, it is not advisable to challenge the official figure of three hundred thousand victims, which is almost certainly highly inflated.
We still do not know even the approximate number of people killed during the chaotic partition of India in 1947-1948: estimates vary from one to two million. The famine caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) claimed at least 15 million victims—the current official figure—and possibly as many as 30 million lives. Either way, the Great Chinese Famine was the largest in human history. The Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia 1975-1979 took between 1.7 and 2.5 million lives. In Rwanda the Hutu-led government killed between 500,000 and over a million Tutsis in 1994. In East Timor up to one-third of all residents were killed following the Indonesian occupation, but the numbers are hotly disputed by Jakarta.
The 20th century witnessed a departure in the conduct of many European states away from the concept of natural morality that provided a salutary restraint on their behavior before 1914. Before the Bolshevik terror, it was not mere expediency which had prevented states from resorting to mass extermination as a means to an end. The limitations on the behavior of states derived from an underlying consensus that raison d’etat entailed continued membership of the community of civilized nations and that the horror of revolutionary France must not be repeated.
The final break came following Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, and the ensuing decision to embark on the Final Solution. Until June 1941 Germany arguably was waging a traditional European war (ein europäischer Normalkrieg) which turned exterminationist after the Barbarossa. There was a corner of Europe, however, where the war had stopped being “normal” well before the struggle in the East reached its existential climax. Ante Pavelic’s Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna država Hrvatska, NDH) was the first member of the New European Order to abandon all remnants of traditional restraints. The Croatian Ustaša mass murder of Serbs in 1941-45 was similar to the Nazi killing of Jews—and different from all other genocides, real or imagined—in that the eradication of the designated enemy group was implicit in the ideological foundations of both movements. In both cases, the regime devoted huge resources to mass murder in pursuit of the utopian vision of a homogenous national community, regardless of whether this threatened military-strategic interests of the state. For both, genocide made sense.
Having written a Ph.D. thesis, a book, and two dozen scholarly articles on the subject, I can claim with some authority that around 300,000 Serbs were murdered (out of 1.9 million living in the Quisling Croatian state in early 1941), with up to a third of them killed in the death camp of Jasenovac alone. As a result I have been fiercely attacked in my native Serbia for “minimizing” and “relativizing” Ustaša crimes.
A methodologically sound quest for the verifiable number of Ustaša victims looks like sacrilege to some Serbs, for whom the provable magnitude of Ustaša crimes—horrendous as they were both in intent and execution—is considered insufficiently high. This has led to a legion of quasi-historians straining to provide the “true evidence.” An example was provided last year by the publication of a massive book by a self-styled Holocaust expert Gideon Greif, under the title Jasenovac: The Auschwitz of the Balkans.
In a massive assemblage of poorly edited secondary-source snippets, the Israeli author asserted enormous figures for the Serb victims of Jasenovac (700,000 or more), and for the Independent State of Croatia as a whole (1.4 million). The book was enthusiastically hailed in Serbia’s media and the author was warmly received in high places, even though Greif offered no scientific evidence for his claims. Not a single new document, not a single original idea. Not a single refereed journal has reviewed Greif’s work. It is “fake history” par excellence. It provides the best favor any Croatian neo-Ustaša revisionist can hope for.
On this form, old sins unatoned for, and dead sinners unrepentant, will continue coming back to haunt the living. To paraphrase John Lukacs, we are nowhere near done dealing with genocides. (Wir sind mit Hitler noch lange nicht fertig, Lukacs wrote in The Hitler of History.)